Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Mexico in Moab: Rio Conchos (1964)

Rio Conchos (1968)

directed by Gordon Douglas

screenplay Joseph Landon

book by Clair Huffaker

music by Jerry Goldsmith

There is no way Rio Conchos qualifies as a great Western, but there are enough interesting things about its story and cast to make it a good one. Director Gordon Douglas was a solid utility director who worked his way up through the Hal Roach studio, directing Our Gang shorts and Laurel and Hardy, and then seemingly whatever else came his way over the next forty years (including Them!). Its cast, led by Richard Boone of Have Gun - Will Travel, includes Stuart Whitman, Tony Franciosa, and, in his film debut, Jim Brown. Edmond O'Brien shows up late in the picture to chew up the scenery as a Confederate bitter-ender and Wende Wagner as an Apache woman named Sally.

The movie opens with a scene that seems to presage the soon to arrive revisionist and Spaghetti Westerns. An Apache burial party is ruthlessly gunned down by a lone white man, Lassister (Richard Boone). Most of them are shot in the back trying to get away. Apaches, we later learn, tortured and killed his family, and now he's carrying on a one-man race war against them.  Soon after he's arrested by a cavalry troop led by Capt. Haven (Stuart Whitman) and accompanied by Sgt. Franklyn (Jim Brown). While it seems he's arrested for killing the Apaches, but Haven is interested in where Lassiter bought the repeating rifle he's carrying.

Richard Boone and Stuart Whitman

It turns out the renegade Col. Pardee is arming the Apaches with repeating rifles he stole from the army. He's come to the conclusion that the Confederacy failed because it wasn't brutal enough during the war, so now he intends to persuade the Apaches to act as his proxies and raise bloody hell across the border region. From his base in Mexico - a recreation of a Southern plantation house out in the desert - Pardee and his coterie of fellow Confederate veterans are joyfully awaiting the day of their victory.

Capt. Haven's commander, Col. Wagner knows Lassister served under Pardee and convinces him to lead Haven and Franklyn to Pardee and hopefully destroy the cache of weapons. Lassister agrees, but only on the condition that he can be joined by Juan Louis Rodriguez (Franciosa), a prisoner of his acquaintance slated for execution. 

Jim Brown and Tony Franciosa

The four set out for Pardee's camp. Along the way, there are run-ins with banditos, a racist barkeep, and finally Apaches and Confederates. Save for the ending, there's nothing particularly surprising or original about Rio Conchos, except for the way it's played - which is with total seriousness. Oh, Franciosa plays Rodriguez with a bright twinkle in his eye, but it only disguises his character's ruthlessness. Everyone else comes at their role with deadly earnestness, especially Boone. Boone's voice never rises, never changes in affect, even when nearly beating a man to death it remains at the same cold, steely tone. This is the closest to playing the hero I've ever seen Boone (I haven't seen Have Gun - Will Travel yet), but he's no good guy. As Haven, Whitman is a martinet driven by his own failure to go after Pardee. Only Brown's Franklyn doesn't have a bad side, though he has to deal with casual racism from most of the white men he meets.

Rio Conchos isn't a revisionist Western - the very traditional-sounding Goldsmith score alone helps make it feel like a traditional one - but it's clearly walking on the road in that direction. There were Indian-murdering protagonists before 1964 - Ethan Hunt in The Searchers, most prominently - but Lassister is clearly a man obsessed beyond reason. Race, while not a huge factor in the movie, nonetheless isn't avoided. The simple presence of Brown at the height of his NFL career in the middle of the Civil Rights era had to have forced contemporary viewers to at least think about the situation of Sgt. Franklyn in post-Civil War America. Finally, unlike too many Westerns, there isn't any nostalgia for the Confederates. Pardee is a madman and his whole plan is to unleash an army of killers to duplicate the savagery inflicted on Lassiter across the whole American border region. 

Edmond O'Brien

Rio Conchos is visually adequate if never particularly memorable. It benefits greatly from being filmed in Moab, Utah. The mesa-filled landscape is so striking it overrides the non-descript cinematography. The action is well-shot and Douglas clearly had a sure hand depicting violence. The scenes aren't gory but they don't pull punches either. When men die it hurts. 

I'm not sure how much remembered Rio Conchos is anymore. It never reaches the heights of The Searchers or the loopiness of A Fistful of Dollars, but, then it doesn't aim for those things. It's just a competently constructed and acted Western that'll take up 107 minutes of an evening. Also, anything starring Richard Boone is worth at least one viewing.

Rating  - B: Again, just 107 minutes of adequate Western goodness. Nothing spectacular, but you won't feel like your time was wasted or your intelligence insulted

Rio Conchos' Historical Location

The film's setting, around Presidio, Texas, and Ojinaga, Mexico looks a lot drabber and flatter than the bright, rust-colored landscape of Moab, Utah where it was filmed. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Saturday, March 6, 2021

L'ultimo Spaghetti: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)


directed by Sergio Leone

screenplay by Sergio Donati
                       Sergio Leone
story by Dario Argento
Sergio Leone

I grew up watching Westerns because of my dad. He loved the genre, books, and movies alike. I remember being excited one summer when Channel 5 announced a week of Clint Eastwood Westerns. My mom and sister were going to be away for a week and it meant my dad and I had control of the tv. I definitely remember watching all three of Eastwood's Man With No Name movies directed by Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Somehow, I didn't see Once Upon a Time in the West until several years later. In fact, the only reason I saw it when I did was that we had run out of things to rent from the local mom & pop video store. This was back in 1985, the heyday of mom-and-pop video stores. The store we belonged to was a block from our house and my family had run through the store's initial collection in only a few weeks. Eventually, with little else to choose from, my mom brought home Once Upon a Time in the West. The title and the box made it look cheesy, but Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Jason Robards on the cover were enticing. I was not ready for what soon unspooled on my VHS player.

With little dialogue, the opening scene introduces three ominous-looking men, two played by immediately recognizable actors: wall-eyed Western character actor Jack Elam, and Olympian and star of John Ford's Sergeant Rutledge, Woody Strode. After an extended sequence built of numerous small, satisfying moments, a train arrives and Charles Bronson, features made of chiseled red granite, debarks. The ensuing action is sharp and swift and was more than enough to hook me right away. Bronson's character never gets a real name but is called Harmonica by people for the eponymous instrument he wears around his neck and plays from time to time. I love Charles Bronson and grew up on his tough guy movies from the seventies and I know he was a fairly limited actor, but within his limits he could do good work and he does that here. Harmonica's an opaque character, saving the answers to his mysteries for a certain time and place and Bronson's blank, squinting demeanor is perfect for what the role needs.

The movie then introduces us to the other major characters in equally powerful scenes. We meet Henry Fonda as Frank, the only completely villainous role I'm aware of him ever playing. It's a brilliant bit of casting against type. Fonda's on-screen persona, going back to his earliest roles, was of a good and noble man, whether in Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, or Advise and Consent. He still has the same calm voice and rational demeanor, but he hasn't a single redeemable quality. It's a bold choice, by Leone and Fonda, that I wish more actors would do. 

Next, as Jill McBain, there's Claudia Cardinale, a murdered man's bride newly arrived from New Orleans. It's hard to tell how good her acting is - most of the non-American actors are dubbed - but she's absolutely luminous. Later we learn she's a whore with a heart, if not of gold, at least silver. Dubbed or not, she plays it with the right mix of hardness and softness. 

Finally, Jason Robards as Cheyenne, leader of a gang of outlaws, makes his entry, freshly escaped from custody and his hands still shackled. He made his career on the stage in Eugene O'Neil plays, but on film, he played more than a few roguish types. With him, Leone cast exactly to type. The liveliest character in the movie, he's the source of most of Once Upon a Time in the West's humor.

With The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in 1967, Sergio Leone felt he was finished with making Westerns. What he wanted to do was make a movie out of Harry Grey's autobiography about his days as a Jewish gangster in New York. Eventually, he would, as Once Upon a Time in America, a truly epic film starring James Woods, Robert De Niro, and William Forsythe, but not until 1984 and not without troubles in getting his full version released.

In 1967, Hollywood just wasn't interested. He kept being offered only Westerns and he kept turning them down. Not until Paramount offered him a big production budget and the services of his favorite actor, Henry Fonda, did he say yes. He had Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci join him in drawing up a story. They spent a year watching classics American Westerns, among them The Iron Horse, High Noon, The Comancheros, and The Searchers. The goal was to create a movie that paid homage to those movies and pack it with as many of the best Western movie tropes as possible. 
As Leone explained: ‘For this “dance of death”, I wanted to take all the most stereotypical characters from the American Western — on loan! The finest whore from New Orleans; the romantic bandit; the killer who is half-businessman, half-killer, and who wants to get on in the new world of business; the businessman who fancies himself as a gun fighter; the lone avenger. With these five most stereotypical characters from the American Western, I wanted to present a homage to the Western at the same time as showing the mutations which American society was undergoing at that time. So the story was about birth and death. Before they even come on to the scene these stereotypical characters know themselves to be dying in every sense, physically and morally — victims of the new era which was advancing.’ Leone’s ultimate goal was nothing less than a ‘cinematic fresco on the birth of America’.
For a detailed look at the creation, production, and legacy of Once Upon a Time in the West, here's a piece titled: The Making of 'Once Upon a Time in the West'. The movie is equal parts pastiche and original artwork. As much as it stokes the fires of revisionism, it's a tremendous homage to the great films Leone and company loved. Unlike the Man With No Name trilogy, which, as much as I love it, never really feel like it sits properly alongside classic American Westerns, this movie does. The cheap, dirty look of Leone's earlier Westerns had more, I think, to do with finances than intent. The budget for this movie was four times that of his previous Western epic, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it shows. Most of Once Upon a Time was still filmed in Spain and Italy, but it just looks better - the shots are better, the sets are better, the costumes are better. The squalidness of the Eastwood movies is absent here, replaced by a glorious, epic look. Added sequences in Monument Valley, the location of many of John Ford's Westerns, add to the film's verisimilitude and help connect it to its inspirations.

I've seen Once Upon a Time in the West described as slow. That is wrong. It is deliberate, taking time to build its characters, the plot, and show off the land. It is a long movie, but it doesn't drag. There's always something happening, some plot unfolding, some bit of violence. It moves between all four lead characters, building their connections to each other and slowly revealing just what is going on: why did Jill's murdered husband order palettes and palettes of lumber? Why did Frank kill those people? Who is Harmonica? 

I need to find longer pieces by Leone, Sergio Corbucci, and some of the other Spaghetti Western directors to learn more about their fascination with Westerns. I've written before about the clear connections between hardboiled crime, sword & sorcery, and Westerns, so I suspect those links are just as valid for Americans as Italians: tough stories of strong men in dangerous settings acting bravely, and often nobly, and bound by personal codes of honor. That's simplistic, but carrying that off perfectly isn't easy. Not every hardboiled movie is The Glass Key or The Maltese Falcon and not every movie is The Searchers....or Once Upon a Time in America.

Rating - A: Despite being a pastiche, Once Upon a Time in the West transcends its fanboyish origins and truly is one of the great Westerns. Yes, the dubbing is occasionally obvious and annoying, yes, it's cobbled together from things we've seen before, but the movie's power - from its cast, from the archetypal Western story and characters, from the visuals - is real. If you see only a single Leone movie, this is the one to see. 

The film's setting - the fictional town of Flagstone - could be anywhere in the explicitly mythical Old West. The real shooting locations - Italy soundstages, the Spanish countryside, and Monument Valley - seem as integral to how I imagine the West to look as does the real American West.

Fonda, Cardinale, Leone, Bronson, & Robards

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

PS: I didn't mention a sword & sorcery movies because they all stink.